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  • The New Germany
  • Stephen F. Szabo (bio)

Far from closing the "German question," the unification of Germany has opened it yet again. Especially pertinent is the issue raised over 30 years ago by Ralf Dahrendorf in his classic study of West Germany—namely, why has Germany had such difficulty in establishing liberal democracy?1 Might not the thread of his inquiry be profitably taken up anew as we ponder the prospects for democratization in Eastern Germany?

Unlike the western two-thirds of Germany, the eastern third has never sustained a successful democracy. Its only experience with democracy came to an end along with the Weimar Republic in 1933. With its incorporation under Article 23 of the Basic Law into the Federal Republic, the territory of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) is now again part of a democracy. Yet Eastern Germany faces not only many problems common to other postcommunist democracies, but also serious questions about its impact on German democracy.

Eastern Germany's incorporation into the larger and successful democracy of West Germany gives it an advantage not shared by the other new European democracies; few doubt that this will ensure the viability of democracy in the East. But democracy in Eastern Germany could have a decisive impact on the overall balance of German politics. The recent decision to move the German capital from Bonn to Berlin is an example of how the presence of the new legislators from the East decided an emotional and hard-fought national issue. [End Page 97]

In order to assess the prospects for democracy in the former GDR, a look back at the reasons both for the failure and the later success of democracy in Germany should prove instructive. Anyone seeking to explain the demise of Weimar or the democratization of the Federal Republic must examine Germany's political culture, the history of its party system, and the various constitutional and electoral arrangements that it has adopted, as well as the broader international context.

Political Culture and Economic Performance

Most examinations of the fall and rise of democracy in Germany turn sooner or later to political culture. It is often noted that Weimar was, in the words of Peter Gay, a republic without republicans.2 Its doom was sealed by a deadly combination of economic depression and nationalist resentment against the Versailles settlement. While Britain, the United States, and France were all weathering the social and economic crises of the 1930s without sacrificing democracy, Weimar was forced to navigate the decade's rough waters without the necessary cultural ballast of solid support for constitutionalism among the general citizenry and the intellectual classes. The turn toward authoritarian alternatives was not seen as unnatural or un-German.

Studies of the political culture of the early years of the Federal Republic, including those of Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba and of the Allensbach Institute, found thin support for such key institutions and practices of democracy as multiparty politics and free speech.3 On the contrary, support for a single-party state remained high in the early 1950s, and there were positive attitudes toward some aspects of National Socialism. Later studies of the political attitudes and values 6f the citizens of West Germany concluded that prior to the 1970s, the legitimacy of democracy was "performance based," resting on the continuing vitality of the West German economy, and that the Federal Republic was thus a "fair-weather" democracy. It was only during the 1970s that evidence of a more deeply rooted democratic political culture began to emerge.

Observers cited a number of reasons for this transformation, including especially the long period of postwar economic growth and societal stability that bolstered performance-based legitimacy as Germans came to realize that democracies too can make the trains run on time. A second reason was the successful transfer of power from the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) to the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in 1969, which convinced the SPD and its supporters that the Federal Republic was not merely a CDU Staat. Finally, there was the gradual socialization of two generations in the ways of democracy, a process that laid a more lasting basis for legitimacy than mere short-term performance...


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pp. 97-107
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